When the Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote his epic, "The Gulag Archipelago," some Americans read it to measure the gulf between the brute savagery of communism and the principled standards of free, civilized nations. But apparently some Americans took it as a helpful how-to volume.
Where would CIA officers have gotten the idea to extract cooperation from detainees by keeping them awake for as long as 180 hours at a time, or more than a week? Maybe from the jailers in Solzhenitsyn's grim account, who used the method on a mass scale.
Enforced sleeplessness, he explained, was favored because it was cheap, easy and left no marks on the prisoner -- not to mention that it was effective. Solzhenitsyn attested from bitter experience that "it is not really necessary to use a rack or hot coals to drive a human being out of his mind."
But American intelligence officials also learned something from the Soviets about manipulating language to conceal reality. When our enemies use methods like this, they amount to torture. When we do, they don't. A newly released 2002 memo from a Bush administration official authorized keeping prisoners awake because "we are not aware of any evidence that sleep deprivation results in severe physical pain or suffering."
That document, signed by Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay Bybee, also deprecates the unpleasantness of waterboarding, which makes the victim feel he is literally drowning. "The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view, inflict 'severe pain or suffering,'" he announced. "The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering." Did I mention that it leaves no marks?
The Bush administration and its defenders have long ridiculed anyone protesting the abuse of detainees. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, lamented that under President Obama, "the U.S. will not longer interrupt the sleep cycle of captured terrorists even to help elicit intelligence that could save the lives of its citizens." The message is simple: It's not really torture, and it works.
The former is obviously untrue as well as dishonest: Solzhenitsyn makes that clear. So do numerous U.S. government reports accusing various regimes of violating human rights through such forms of torture as sleep deprivation. Likewise, the U.S. government used to take a negative view of waterboarding. But apparently we only object when we're not the ones doing it.